The Hub Cool News

Gods’ Sake

When it comes to marketing Japanese rice wine, "the odder the tale, the louder the buzz," reports Jeff Gordinier in the New York Times (2/1/11). And the higher the price. For example, a sake called Ginga Shizuku, or Divine Droplets "is made by hanging canvas bags of fermenting mash in a handmade ice dome … and patiently letting the sake filter out in a slow, pure drip." A bottle sells for $72, although you can get an economy version, called Ice Dome, that’s aged in an igloo but without the drip, for just $40.

"Sometimes when you hear the story, you’re drinking the story as much as you’re drinking the wine," says Beau Timken of True Sake, in San Francisco. If you can remember the name, that is. The problem for non-Japanese drinkers is that most sake labels are written in Japanese. To fix this, some producers are now labeling their sake with "haunting, haiku-like evocations," like Wandering Poet and Dreamy Clouds. But the real key is in the backstory, which can be easier to remember than a name.

Among the most exotic of such stories is that of Watari Bune sake, which is "created from a rare strain of rice" that is all but extinct. In 1980, Takaaki Yamauchi of the Huchu Homare brewery, "managed to acquire 14 grams of Watari Bune seedlings," which he planted, grew and brewed. A bottle sells for $160. The most expensive story concerns Kakunko junmai daiginjo sake from the Sudo Honke brewery, founded in 1141. Aged for ten years, this sake sells, "on the cheap side, for six or seven thousand dollars" a bottle.

Burberry’s World

"Burberry has benefited from globalization, and from its limitations too," reports the Economist (1/22/11). One benefit is that Burberry enjoyed a 27 percent revenue increase in the final quarter of 2010, much of it from a 68 percent increase in sales in Asia. Part of this growth is thanks to Burberry’s acquisition of 50 shops in China that previously belonged to franchisees. But it’s also because of "the rise of Asian rich," and the popularity of Burberry styles there.

The thing is that wealthy and trendy Asians might not have taken to Burberry’s had they been aware of its image back in Britain, where so-called "chavs" — "the stereotypical white working class delinquent looking for trouble" — took to wearing "Burberry baseball caps and jackets" featuring its trademark check pattern. Burberry successfully battled this trend in the UK by playing down the checks on its apparel and busting "vendors selling counterfeit versions of Burberry clothes at discount rates."

Meanwhile, in foreign markets, consumers "continued to see Burberry as the august outfit that clothed Ernest Shackleton for his Antarctic expedition nearly a century ago, not the favored label of a subculture they could barely comprehend. Modern economics and technology allows Chinese, Brazilian and American consumers to buy the wares of a London firm. But it has not made it that much easier to grasp the cultural nuances of another country." Lucky for Burberry, its Asian customers never really knew about chavs.

Chinese Invention

China is taking a “brute force” approach to innovation, setting a target of two million new patents annually by 2015, reports Steve Lohr in the New York Times (1/2/11). David J. Kappos of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office says China’s goal is “mind-blowing.” In 2009, a total of 600,000 patents were filed in China, half of which were “utility-model patents” which generally are for “engineering features in a product” as opposed to full-scale “invention” patents. By comparison, the U.S. filed a total of 480,000 patents, but these were “invention” patents (the U.S. system does not offer utility patents).

“The leadership in China knows that innovation is its future, the key to higher living standards and long-term growth,” says David. “They are doing everything they can to drive innovation, and China’s patent strategy is part of that broader goal.” To achieve this, the Chinese government is offering incentives including “cash bonuses, better housing for individual filers and tax breaks for companies that are prolific patent producers.” However, some compare China’s “industrial policy” on patents to Japan’s in the 1980s, which was not entirely successful for various reasons.

In particular, “Japan never became a force in a particularly unruly, imaginative side of computing: writing software.” And the successes it did have are not necessarily linked to its industrial policy. Similarly, China is “emphasizing the quantity of innovation assets more than the quality,” says John Kao, an innovation consultant. John also suggests that the US could benefit from China’s patents by being the “systems integrator … of the innovation process. Look at Silicon Valley,” he says. “It is a place where smart people from all nations, all languages and all ethnic groups come together. It’s the capital of innovation assembly.”

Blacksmith Street

Once Nguyen Phuong Hung is gone, Hanoi’s Blacksmith Street will likely disappear, like Fan Street, China Bowl Street and Conical Hat Street, reports Seth Mydans in the New York Times (11/25/10). When Mr. Hung was a child, Blacksmith Street "rang with the sounds of the smithies, producing farm equipment, horseshoes and hand tools." His father was a blacksmith and Mr. Hung took up the trade. "I still remember, when it was raining lightly, the streets were empty and … all you could hear was the sound of hammers," he says.

But now, at age 49, he’s the only blacksmith remaining (video); the others "left for lighter, better-paying work, and because word was out that no modern woman would marry a blacksmith." In fact, Mr. Hung’s own wife told him "she never would have married him if she had known he would become a blacksmith." So, he makes sure he’s all cleaned and scrubbed by the time he gets home. "I’m proud to be the last one," says Mr. Hung, but admits that once he’s gone, "the street will have no meaning anymore."

As the last blacksmith standing, he’s doing better than ever — but ironically his main source of work come from "people who tear down, rebuild and renovate the buildings" in his neighborhood, known as the Ancient Quarter. The area has been a center of business since the ninth century, and at the turn of the 19th century, 36 guilds were established on "36 narrow streets." Mr. Hung seems determined to hang in there, quoting his father, who told him, "When the iron glows red, you earn your money. That is your life."

Koshu Grapes

Long derided as sugary schlock, Koshu wine from Japan is being reinvented for the world market, reports Corie Brown in the New York Times (10/27/10). Koshu has been around for about 150 years, and it has a bad reputation because traditionally it’s been made with "damaged and rotten" fruit, rendered somewhat palatable with heavy doses of sugar. But an American enthusiast, wine importer Ernest Singer, sees potential for Koshu as a dry wine that can be "light and crisp with subtle citrus flavors."

In fact, Ernest thinks that Koshu is "a match for Japan’s cuisine." He’s been on the Koshu trail for nearly a decade now, working with "a clutch of family-owned Japanese wineries … under the banner Koshu of Japan." Among them is Shigekazu Misawa of Grace Wine, which had been making bad Koshu for generations. "Koshu is two-thirds of all we make," he says. "And we needed to make it better." Changes include planting the vines differently (in rows, not canopies) and "getting rid of the grape’s bitter skin early in the process." And no added sugar.

The result, so far, is a simple, bone-dry wine, with low alcohol content. One Koshu, a 2004 vintage made at Grace Winery, went over well with Robert M. Parker Jr., the wine critic, who "gave it a score of 87/88 on a scale of 100." But the wine has yet to go over big in Japan, where "wine drinkers are slow to believe that they are worth their price tags of $20 and up." Koshu is an even tougher sell in the US, where it is not yet readily available, but can cost $50 a bottle at restaurants. Ernest Singer remains optimistic, however: "I’ve been in Japan for 50 years," he says, adding, "this movement is going to blossom."

Mashup Nation

Michael Ip, Landor
Mashup offers new brand opportunities in China. By Michael Ip. (more)

Jidori Chicken

"You don’t just grow a chicken, you form a relationship," says Dennis Mao in a New York Times article by Jennifer Steinhauer (4/21/10). The relationship in question is with so-called Jidori-style chickens, a type of chicken first raised in Japan, and now popular in Los Angeles. The relationship involves feeding the chickens vegetarian diets with no antibiotics and letting them roam free before killing them, cleaning them by hand, chilling them in ice water and delivering them to chefs, with the head and feet still attached, within 24 hours of slaughter.

Chefs prize these birds, said to have a "super-fowl flavor." They are leaner than the usual chicken with only about two percent water retention, versus the ten percent allowed by law. Dennis began raising Jidori-style chickens in 1995. "I just knew this was something important," he says. "Chicken was always a cheap protein, but we decided to give them the respect they deserve." At first, his only customers were Japanese chefs, who were familiar with Jidori chickens from back home.

Dennis’s break came when Wolfgang Puck began using his chickens, and today his Jidori chicken "has such cachet in Los Angeles that even chefs who don’t have any sometimes claim it on their menus." In fact, even Dennis’s Jidoris aren’t truly authentic — only chickens raised in Jidori, Japan, can make that claim. But Dennis’s business is growing, having expanded into a restaurant, Robata-Ya, where, among other things, "he serves up … raw chicken-liver sashimi … braised coxcombs and grilled chicken hearts with the aortas still attached."

Mr. Soft Heart

"In the end, kids are the same all over the world. They see an ice cream truck, they come running," says Alex Conway in a New York Times piece by Vincent M. Mallozzi (4/15/10). Alex would know: His grandfather, James Conway, helped start the Mr. Softee franchise, selling soft-serve ice cream from trucks, back in 1956. The trucks are still going strong "in Washington Heights, Coney Island and neighborhoods in between," although they’re no longer permitted by law to ring their bells while they’re parked.

Ironically, that’s the only time they are permitted to ring their bells in China, where Mr. Softee is globalizing with five trucks in Suzhou, "an ancient city of more than six million people about 50 miles west of Shanghai … and one in a nearby city, Taicang." The idea of Mr. Softee in China occurred when Alex’s former college roommate, Turner Sparks, noticed that, despite "a deluge of American fast food franchises" there was nothing like Mister Softee. In fact nobody was selling anything at all out of trucks.

So, Alex filled out lots of forms and brought his cone-headed logo to China, under the name "Ruan Xin Xian Sheng," which translates into Mr. Soft Heart "because there is no Mandarin word for Softee." He also adjusted flavors to include kiwi and red bean blast, "a rice-cake-flavored ice cream covered with red beans and topped with whipped cream." That’s one of Mr. Soft Heart’s biggest sellers — and sales have doubled "every year since the first truck started rolling three years ago." Alex now plans to expand to Hangzhou and Wuxi.

Chrysler Muscles

Olivier Francois, Chrysler’s brand chief, is bringing back "models wearing metallic minidresses" to automotive marketing, reports David Welch in Bloomberg BusinessWeek (3/15/10). "I am doing here what I know from [home]," says Olivier, whose home is France and claim to fame is Fiat’s recent success in Italy. His goal is "to attract a younger, hipper, wealthier customer as Chrysler’s traditional buyers age and dwindle in number." To accomplish this, he’s not afraid to court some controversy, as well as "generate new heat around the brand’s muscle cars."

During the SuperBowl, for example, he ran a "slyly sexist commercial for the Dodge Charger" called "Man’s Last Stand." The spot "featured closeups of regular guys saying: ‘I will shave. I will carry your lip balm. I will put the seat down." And then the voiceover, as a Charger speeds away adds, "Because I do this, I will drive the car I want to drive." The spot did create buzz, including a great YouTube spoof done from a woman’s perspective: "I will put my career on hold to raise your children. I will diet, botox, and wax everything …" (video)

Whether that kind of buzz translates into sales remains to be seen, obviously. Olivier also says he’s on the lookout for cars that "people want to make out in." This would be a switch "for an automaker best known for the Town & Country minivan." And it may not help attract more women to, say, Dodge, whose buyers are three-quarters male — or soccer moms and dads, for that matter. Industry analyst John Wolkonowicz is among those doubting that what worked in Italy for Fiat will work for Chrysler in America. "Americans don’t have that kind of loyalty," he says.

Tears of Mermaids

"Pearls embody how humans can trick Mother Nature into producing some of the world’s most expensive objects," writes Stephen G. Bloom in "Tears of Mermaids," as reviewed by Joseph Sternberg in the Wall Street Journal (12/28/09). "A perfect natural pearl of extraordinary quality may be the product of one out of ten million oysters," Stephen explains. This, of course, is the reason pearls are so expensive, and until the late 1800s, only the very wealthy could afford them.

That began to change in 1888, when "Kokichi Mikimoto, the son of a poor noodle-maker in Japan, started a pearl farm that would eventually democratize the world pearl market. By the first decade of the 20th century, Mikimoto had perfected a technique for cultivating pearls, inserting a nucleus of North American mussel shell into an oyster that would then produce a pearl in as little as two years … Cultured Japanese pearls took America by storm in the 1940s and ’50s when homeward- bound GIs bought them for their wives and girlfriends."

It was kind of a no-brainer, since pearls, essentially, are just "accumulations of concentric layers of nacre, a compound of calcium carbonate that some mollusks … produce to line the insides of their shells." But pearls also form a kind of "aesthetic rapport … with their wearers, absorbing body heat and seeming to glow and reflect luminescence onto the skin." Today, Chinese entrepreneurs "have found ways to culture pearls in a species of mollusk that can produce more pearls per bivalve than the typical oyster," making pearls "cheaper and available in more varied colors" to more people than ever.

Bia Hoi

"Vietnam is one of the most exciting beer markets in the world today," says Walter Bocker in a Wall Street Journal piece by James Hookway (9/15/09). Walter is with Gannon Group, which is "Anheuser-Busch’s Vietnam-based partner." He is joined in his enthusiasm by Carlsberg, Heineken and SAB Miller, each of which has a joint-venture going in Vietnam. Collectively, these foreign brewers have put Vietnam’s state-run beer enterprises on the run, but not for long, perhaps. Never underestimate the potential of socialized beer.

Local, "state-invested Vietnamese brewers," such as "Hanoi-based Habeco and Ho Chi Minh City’s Sabeco are readying themselves for a fight." Their strategy centers on providing something the imports do not — specifically a local specialty called "bia hoi, which translates as ‘fresh beer,’ a relatively low-alcohol, bitter brew with a shelf life of a few days that makes up 30 percent of the beer market" in Vietnam. Bia hoi costs "about a third the price of an international brand," and first became popular during the U.S. Vietnam war, when there wasn’t enough glass to make bottles.

To this day, Bia hoi is "sold only in kegs, delivered early each morning to hundreds of side-street restaurants in Hanoi. By lunchtime, people are tossing back chipped-glass-tumblers of the beer while munching dried squid, fried tofu and other snacks." Habeco, founded in 1890 by French colonials, has seen its sales double between 2004 and 2007. Sabeco’s sales have increased to 900 million litres from 500 million between 2006 and 2008. However, foreign brewers see in bia hoi only a quagmire of "low margins and different route-to-market characteristics," and plan to continue to rely on "deep pockets" and traditional marketing techniques.

Beijing Merchants

Their merchandising is illegal now, but that doesn’t stop China’s singing, shouting vendors from making their way up and down Beijing’s alleyways, reports Andrew Jacobs in the New York Times (9/14/09). "The best time to be out is lunchtime, when the chengguan are on break," says Meng Ziandong, who sells "dried sweet potatoes." The chengguan are "urban management officials" who will fine Meng if they can find him. Beijing would like to clear out the street vendors as just more of the "visual chaos" they believe doesn’t enhance the city’s tourism appeal.

It’s also audio chaos of sorts, or perhaps a symphony. "Goat meat, goat meat!" "Eggs, rice, eggs, rice!" "Scrap, household scrap!" At one time, not that long ago, these street vendors "filled the air with a cacophony of competing tunes … the marketing jingles of itinerant fruit vendors, sellers of roasted duck and stooped men who have mastered the art of resuscitating blunt kitchen knives." Back then, "Beijing was a thickly populated maze of hutongs, or alleys, that crept outward from the grandiose imperial quarters occupied by China’s emperors and the officials and artisans who served them."

Cao Huiping, 45, remembers those days. "One minute it would be someone selling sugar, then as soon as their song faded it would be a flour dealer, then the fabric salesman," he says. Today, he says, "everyone shops at the supermarket." But they’re missing out on the talents of Zhao Cai, a knife-sharpener, whose best song is "the noise of grinding stone on metal." And they won’t experience Li Hailun, a grasshopper salesman, who sells the insects in nifty bamboo cages, priced based on "the quality of the song." Li does a brisk business: "Everyone loves grasshoppers," he says. "When they sing, you can’t help but feel happy."

Water Honey Peaches

The best peaches in the world have skins that are "sickly, greenish white," and are so juicy they are "best eaten over a sink," reports Stan Sesser in the Wall Street Journal (8/15/09). They are Chinese water honey peaches, and "must be tasted to believed." They are plentiful in Yangshan, China, but only locally. These peaches are "big, soft, and white-fleshed" and must be eaten within hours after they are picked. "They’re so tender, if you press on one, in an hour there will be a black spot," says Tang Haijun, a water honey peach industry spokesman.

So, even if it were possible to export or grow water honey peaches in America (which it might be) the cost would deter most shoppers if the fruit’s strange looks didn’t stop them first. Even in Shanghai or Bejing, a single water honey peach sells for three dollars. The fruit is so delicate that each is "individually wrapped with newspaper while it is ripening on the tree." Its pale color actually signals its sweetness, compared to American peaches which "are bred to be almost entirely red," which is believed to trigger an "expectation of sweetness in the human brain."

We’d also need to get used to eating these peaches: "First, you should gently massage the peach for several minutes, releasing the juice. When it starts feeling like a sponge, it’s ready to be peeled; the skin slips off like a glove. Then you just pick it up whole and slurp away; cutting it would result in waste of the delicious juice." Chinese do nothing with water honey peaches other than eat them whole — they’re not used in cooking, in ice cream or on cereal. But could there be a market for honey peach water here in America … ?

Beer Lao

The number-one beer in Laos "is building a network of fans-turned-distributors" in hopes of turning its cult status into a global brand, reports Emily Rauhala in the New York Times (5/26/09). Beer Lao, which "enjoys a 99 percent market share in Laos," is otherwise "notoriously hard to find" elsewhere around the world. Even though it is half-owned by Carlsberg (the other half is owned by the Lao government) "just one percent of its annual production is exported."

Lao Brewery wants to grow to its exports to 10 percent, and its plan involves persuading former expats and backpacking visitors to take the beer with them when they return home. Jerry Cheung, who lived in Cambodia for a time before returning to Hong Kong, is among those who sees potential. Basically, he just loves the beer: "It was the most unique beer I’ve ever tasted," he says. Beer Lao is a "rice-based lager," which Jerry, and others say "gives the beer a flavor that is light and crisp." Others aren’t so sure about that.

"This is very much one of the international-style pilsners that happens to be brewed in exotic locations," says Randy Mosher, author of Tasting Beer. "Fizzy yellow beers tend to be all the same." The beer’s exotic — obscure — origins does appear to work in its favor, not unlike Coors, which initially benefitted from its limited availability. Its association with backpacking, and world traveling, may also be helping its story. So far, Beer Lao has made its way "across Southeast Asia" as well as certain cities in the U.S., Japan, Britain, France, Germany, Australia and New Zealand.

Rooster Sauce

Little did David Tran dream that the hot sauce he created for Vietnamese immigrants would be a hit among Manhattan chefs like Jean-Georges Vongerichten, reports John T. Edge in the New York Times (5/20/09). Jean-Georges, of Perry St. restaurant, likes to use David’s "sweet, garlicky" sauce on his "rice-cracker-crusted tuna with citrus sauce." He’s also tried it with asparagus. "It’s well-balanced, perfect in a hollandaise," he says. Chef Bryan Caswell of Reef, a Houston restaurant," thinks David’s creation goes great with fried foods. "It’s not heavily fermented, it’s not acidic," he says.

David, a Vietnamese refugee himself, did hope that his hot sauce would appeal to American consumers in general. "After I came to America, after I came to Los Angeles, I remember seeing Heinz 57 ketchup and thinking: ‘The 1984 Olympics are coming. How about I come up with a Tran 84, something I can sell to everyone?" He called the result Tuong Ot Sriracha — which has since been nicknamed, Rooster Sauce, because of a drawing of a rooster (David’s astrological sign) on its label. Others call it "the green-capped stuff" because of the bottle’s cap.

David says his sauce is not positioned as an "authentic" Vietnamese or Thai sriracha sauce. "It’s my sriracha," he says, adding that all he does is "grind peppers, add garlic and bottle it." His label lists those (and a few other) ingredients in four languages and offers serving suggestions including "pizza, hot dogs, hamburgers and … pate." Restaurant chains including P.F. Chang’s. Roly Poly and Applebee’s also use his sauce, and you can even buy it at Walmart now — about 10 million bottles are sold each year. However, despite its mainstream success, 80 percent of distribution remains "through Asian channels."

Problem Solving 101

problem solving 101If Ken Watanabe’s Problem Solving 101 is a hit in America, it could create a new genre of business books, suggests Del Jones in USA Today (2/25/09). At just 100 pages long, it "was originally written as a textbook for seventh- and eighth-graders" in Japan but its simplicity has struck a chord with Japanese business people, as well. Using "juvenile-looking illustrations and flowcharts," the book tells readers how to diagnose a problem and then implement a solution.

For example, a case called "The Mushroom Lovers" is about "a rock band that can’t get an audience at concerts. Ken instructs readers to think like doctors trying to cure a patient. He recommends listing potential causes of the problem, arriving at a hypothesis for the most likely cause, analyzing the cause, coming up with possible solutions, then prioritizing action and implementing a plan."

The book has already sold some 370,000 copies in Japan, and Ken thinks that’s because Japanese schools focus too much on rote memorization and not critical thinking skills. He says American schools are better than those in Japan in teaching problem-solving, but "still fall short." If the book catches on here, it will be the first time in a long time that a Japanese business book sold well in the U.S., where interest in Japanese management techniques faded along with the Japanese economy some 20 years ago. ~ Tim Manners, editor.


Include sushi chefs among those who are more cranky than ever because of energy prices, reports Katie McLaughlin in the Wall Street Journal (10/28/08). “Chefs say they are paying 30 percent to 50 percent more for staples like tuna and yellowtail … At the same time, disappearing fish populations around the world have made some chefs particularly passionate about serving sushi in its purest and simplest form.” As chef Nobi Kusuhara of Sushi Sasabune in L.A. observes, “You’re not going to be able to taste this fish forever.” He’s referring specifically “to dwindling varieties such as bluefin tuna and abalone.” Such realities are not only coloring the way certain sushi chefs prepare their fish, but also the way they treat their customers.

Some of the more traditional chefs refuse to make spicy tuna rolls, “which they say were only invented so that restaurants could mask the taste of substandard fish.” California rolls, featuring that imitation crab stuff, are equally despised. Don’t even think of requesting “fried soft-shell crab rolls,” at a traditional sushi bar, which Andy Matsuda of the Sushi Chef Institute says is like “going to your grandma’s Thanksgiving dinner and someone brings a pizza.” So much as asking for extra soy sauce, rice or miso soup can get you kicked out of some of these sushi restaurants.

At Sushi Nozawa in Studio City, Calif., chef Kazunori Nozawa won’t even let you decide what to order. That’s actually a tradition in itself, called “omakase,” which translates roughly into “trust the chef.” Those who don’t like these rule are ordered to leave. Some diners are intimidated, others turn belligerent, but most are okay with the attitude, and even enjoy watching others get the boot. David Stewart, a psychologist, says diners are attracted to these “sushi bullies” in part because of “the scarcity principle,” in the sense that “people value praise more when it comes from people who don’t give it out easily.” He says some people also enjoy “modest risk” but most of all seek “approbation.” ~ Tim Manners, editor

Tea Philosophy

“Tea is not salvation … Just like Zen is not salvation. You do it for the sake of doing it,” says Hisashi Yamada, a “certified tea master,” in a New York Times piece by Marc Santora (9/21/08). Hisashi is now retired, but taught “the sublime peace that can come from the study of tea” to Americans for 40 years, most recently at the Urasenke Chanoyu Center in N.Y.C. It would seem an unlikely turn of events for him, having once “volunteered to be a kamikaze pilot” during World War II. Lucky for him (and his target), “Japan ran out of planes before it was his turn.”

It was a “wealthy aristocrat named Burton Edwards Martin” who turned Hishashi onto the study of tea, and eventually brought him to America, where his first job was “as a translator at the 1964 World’s Fair, where he described the Japanese tea ceremony to visitors.” At the time, “there was no tea culture in America,” says Hisashi, who says that studying tea is like a religion. The tea ceremony actually dates back about 400 years, when “a man named Sen Rikyu elevated the tea ceremony to an art.”

The philosophy of tea, says Hisashi, “involves architecture, the garden, calligraphy, flowers, pottery and much more.” A ceremony can be either with “thin tea,” which is less formal and where conversation is allowed, or “thick tea,” which “can last as long as four hours,” and is silent. At the Urasenke center, “there is a garden surrounded by tearooms. A skylight creates the impression that it is outside — and a world away from city streets.” Everyone enters through a crawlspace, “making everyone equal.” Hisashi thinks even ultra-busy Americans should find time for tea. “You discover that you are not as busy as you think,” he says. ~ Tim Manners, editor

mao's mangoes

A box of fresh mangoes given as a gift to Chairman Mao in 1968 is perhaps a metaphor for the way in which he persists as a pop-culture presence in today’s China, suggests Holland Cotter in the New York Times (8/3/08). The mangoes were a gift from a visiting Pakistani foreign minister, and Mao decided to share them with Communist Party workers. Mao meant it only as a friendly gesture, but the “fruit was received as material proof of a godlike ruler’s love for his subjects, and it was treated with religious awe…”

“… Some of the mangoes were boiled down to yield a precious elixir; others were pickled in formaldehyde and placed on factory altars. When the actual fruits ran out, realistic wax facsimiles were made and locked in glass boxes, like the bones of saints. Mango images proliferated on mass-produced plates and teapots, towels and quilts.” The mango as icon is little remembered in China today, but Holland Cotter was reminded of it, apparently while visiting Mao’s mausoleum, where the Chairman’s body is on display, visible through “a faceted see-through case.”

While for some the sight may be “a large and solemn moment,” for others it may be something else. Holland’s traveling companion thought the body was a fake. She’s not alone, and Holland thinks she might be right: “Judging from a passing glance, it could be wax, like a miraculous mango, or rubber, a sculpture that might exist in several versions.” Not unlike “the ocean of Mao statues” for sale at the Panjiayuan flea market: “White, red, green and pink Maos. Mao in plaster, stone and bronze. Mao sitting, standing, striding, waving. Mao relaxing with a cigarette; Mao in a bathrobe, ready for a dip.” Still iconic after all these years. ~ Tim Manners, editor

The Invicta

Car marketers used to export their designs to China, but soon it may be the other way around, reports John D. Stoll in the Wall Street Journal (6/23/08). Ed Welburn, the design chief for General Motors, says a "somewhat acquatic" style of design, where cars kind of look like fish, is gaining popularity in China, and suggests the look may spread elsewhere, worldwide. For example, the grilles might have "bubbly air vents rather than horizontal slats." Ed says other Chinese influences "including ancient art and dragons" are also finding their way into Chinese car design and may be picked up elsewhere. On the new Buick Invicta, the "headlamps and tail lamps carry intricate detail that … make the lights look like they are encased in jade," for instance (image here).

The Invicta is a midsized car that "won’t be sold to the public as a production model," but instead "serve as the basis for the second-generation Buick LaCrosse sedan that GM plans to unveil next year" for sale in both China and the United States. It’s expected that "future Buick models will borrow from Invicta’s design but won’t resemble the concept car as closely as the LaCrosse. Buick enjoys an especially strong brand identity in China, where it began selling cars in 1997. Its popularity is rooted in its image as a luxury brand because it had previouysly been imported into China by "foreign diplomats and businessmen" for decades.

That legacy is evident in the car’s design, which gives the back seat a priority, the opposite of American preference. "We wanted this to look a lot like a stretch limo, putting a lot of space into the passenger seat compartments," says Ed Welburn. "As a result, the Invicta has an extra set of stereo and climate controls stashed in the back seat’s armrest. It also ahs more back-seat legroom and interior chrome accents to give it a luxurious feel … The interior is splashed with light, warm colors" and the wood trim blends with the seat leather," a nod to the Chinese, who are used to monotone color schemes." Exterior vents meanwhile were moved from the fenders to the hood, and reduced to three from four, because "Chinese buyers typically associate the number four with death." ~ Tim Manners, editor